Here we go again.
The people of this nation like to hold the United States up as a sanctuary for free speech and freedom of expression. We like to think of the U.S. as a beacon for freedom that shines like no other.
But when someone comes along and says something or does something with which we disagree, suddenly there is talk about needing to change the rules.
On Open Government
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He is a former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register.
Visit the Iowa Freedom of Information Council website at: http://ifoic.org/
Those progressives, notably former Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, jumped to the defense of protestors who kept conservative commentator Ann Coulter from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley.
It’s a sad day in the United States when a public speaker — any public speaker, regardless of political affiliation or views — is unable to speak because of the actions of those who disagree with the person.
Dean called Coulter’s views “hate speech.” He claimed the Constitution offers no protection for such speech.
But Dean and others who share that narrow interpretation are wrong. The Constitution protects more than just the ideas and commentary we agree with.
We don’t get to jam the Constitution into the mouths of those whose ideas and rhetoric we dislike. We don’t get to use the Constitution to silence those we don’t want to hear and don’t want others to hear.
Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, summarized the issue this way: “All speech is equally protected, whether it’s hateful or cheerful. It doesn’t matter if it’s racist, sexist or in poor taste.”
But our president, just like Howard Dean, is among those who fail to understand the nuances of the First Amendment.
People like Trump and Dean want to believe the First Amendment is there to protect those expressing views, whether popular or unpopular with the masses, as long as those views and ideas mirror theirs. These people are less inclined to think the First Amendment should protect people with contrary views.
Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, told reporters over the weekend the president is looking at ways to make it easier to sue the media. Among the ways, Priebus acknowledged, is amending the First Amendment.
Trump has threatened lawsuits against journalists before when they publish or broadcast articles he dislikes or disagrees with. But he rarely follows through.
In the United States, a public official such as Trump (or Hillary Clinton, too) would have to prove journalists or any other person acted with actual malice and knowingly used inaccurate details to damage Trump’s (or Clinton’s) reputation.
Last year, the New York Times reported on a parade of women all of whom alleged Trump made unwanted sexual advances on them. Trump demanded a retraction and threatened to sue.
But the Times lawyer said in a letter to his lawyer: “We did what the law allows. We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern. If Mr. Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.”
Trump’s lack of familiarity with our Constitution goes beyond the First Amendment.
Over the weekend, he criticized Congress’ “archaic system” for the slow progress of his legislative wish list through the House and Senate — a House and Senate, by the way, that each has a Republican majority.
He also said the Constitution itself was “archaic.”
The Founding Fathers did not want to create a system of government that would give a president as much authority as Trump and many of the presidents who came before him wanted. The Founders settled on a system of checks and balances through three separate and distinct branches of government to guard against that concern of too much power in the hands of one person.
There’s another reason Trump might want to rethink his disparaging comments about the Constitution:
There are people who believe the Constitution’s Electoral College — the means by which Trump won the presidency, even though Hillary Clinton received more votes on Election Day — is the part that is archaic.
* * *
Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.